Blowing in from the Windy City: Pharez Whitted and Kurt Elling collaborate with Butler University jazz groups

Jazz has gone to school for decades, and while there is debate about how much institutionalization is good for the music, there's no doubt that more well-schooled musicians have been brought into its purview than since the Swing Era. And there is much to teach and a lot of pleasure to give beyond the seminar-like jam sessions of yesteryear — a perspective germane to this year's Butler ArtsFest's theme, “Time and Timeless.”
Butler University jazz displayed its current level of accomplishment Friday night as the 2016 Butler ArtsFest presented trumpeter Pharez Whitted and singer Kurt Elling fronting student musicians at the Athenaeum.

Opening the concert before a large, boisterously enthusiastic crowd, Indianapolis-born Whitted paid tribute to three homegrown giants of 20th-century jazz in a set featuring two student combos: Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, and Freddie Hubbard.

The first group set Whitted against an expert rhythm section, with the guest artist joined in the front line by tenor saxophonist Sam Turley and trumpeter Kent Hickey. Hickey proved an adept enough player not to seem superfluous when compared to Whitted, though the latter displayed the benefit of his many years of tending the jazz flame and knowing just how to fan it into a blaze when needed. Hubbard's “Sky Dive” was a standout in this regard.

Tight arrangements like Johnson's “In Walked Horace” (honoring Horace Silver) presented the group's hard-bop bona fides capably. A fresh rhythm section helped Whitted close his set with deep-dyed bluesy performances of Montgomery's “Mr. Walker” and Johnson's “Jay Jay.”

Elling, previously seen here at the Jazz Kitchen and Indy Jazz Fest, clearly relished his opportunity to bring the big-band arrangements in his book to this gig. He burst onto the stage, after Butler jazz director led the Jazz Ensemble in an instrumental introduction, with Joe Jackson's “Steppin' Out.” His voice's greater power and breath control made Elling's version superior to the original. The performance featured a toothsome alto-sax solo by Daniel Karr.

As Whitted had with the combos, Elling worked on keeping the energy level of the accompaniment high — and drew the response he was after. His set was well-designed, with lots of contrast, including plenty of challenges for the student musicians. They were quite ready for them all, both as an ensemble and as soloists, especially saxophonist Turley.

Elling's tireless baritone, with its falsetto and scatting abilities brought into play selectively, lit up the hall. “I Like the Sunrise” and “Tutti for Cootie” were two selections from the Duke Ellington repertoire with an outpouring of gusto from guest artist and band alike.

In his long spoken introduction to “Lil Darlin',” Elling traced the force of heritage that lies behind the arrangement he presented. He put lyrics to bassist Ray Brown's introduction to the tune, joining them in mood and spirit to Jon Hendricks' vocalese on John Clayton's slyly poky arrangement of Neal Hefti's composition for Count Basie. The list of credits is illustrious indeed. The constellation winked from celestial regions in this performance.

Elling's originality shone through every phrase of the evergreen “I Can't Give You Anything But Love,” which had an outstanding solo by pianist Michael Melbardis. The high-octane set ended with a multifaceted arrangement of “Nature Boy,” starting slow and moving dramatically to a rapid pace, as if to celebrate the timeless nature of the wisdom the song celebrates.